Home-Based Spirituality and Liminality(1,2)
Experience of a domestic silent retreat during lockdown
For many of us, silence plays an integral part on our spiritual journey. It may be experienced as a welcome challenge or a necessity for the nourishment of our souls and inner lives. Silence may provide perspective, clarity or just a respite. It may lead us toward union with the Mystery, the Unknown, or simply refresh our bodies and minds. To practice the discipline of silence, as suggested by our Father St Benedict, we sometimes feel the need to go on a retreat. During the general lockdown in the UK but also in many other countries globally, churches, monasteries and retreat houses had become inaccessible. Building on our previous experiences of silent days and weekends held at home, my wife and I—both oblates of Douai Abbey—took the decision to embark on a week in silence during lockdown in the middle of London in June 2020.
We think that a traditional silent retreat can be described by similar phases and stages as found in rites of passage all around the world (1,2). Thus the first stage (separation) entails steps to help detach ourselves from our normal lives, day-to-day activities, and familiar environment while we leave home to travel to a new—often monastic—location. In the second phase of a retreat (pre-liminal phase) we are asked to open ourselves for the hospitality of the new place, aligning to a new timetable and often a new community. Then in a third phase (liminal phase) we spend one or more days with no outside contact, mobile phones, screen time, or reading, and instead allow for extended time in prayer or meditation, to listen and become receptive. Depending on the duration of prolonged silence, different depths of silence may be encountered. Last but not least, we end the retreat and travel back to our normal lives, reaping the fruits and integrating the benefits of silence over an extended period of time—not infrequently unnoticed by ourselves (post liminal phase or re-aggregation phase).
In our 6-day silent retreat in June, we noticed a number of differences but also some similarities and advantages compared with the traditional retreat format:
In contrast to a ‘go-away-retreat’ our domestic retreat required solid logistical preparation. As we were self-catering, online shopping had to be organised in advance. Neighbours, family, colleagues and friends were informed that we would be off the grid for a week, and exchange only silent greetings across the fence. Chores and tasks had to be discussed, agreed and divided, each of us assigned as the ‘giver’ or ‘receiver’ on alternate days. We designed a time table (horarium) to ensure the smooth flow of our retreat, scheduling in time for meditation, yoga, meals, and, of course, leisure.
The ceremonial switching off (or enabling flight mode) of mobile phones initiated our separation phase that also meant that we didn’t read books or spend time in front of screens. This phase seemed to take longer than in traditional settings where unfamiliar surroundings and new faces aid a sense of detachment.
Our timetable was incredibly helpful, providing structure, security, and predictability for our shared times. We left ample time for rest and leisure, spent according to personal preferences in nature or practising art. If required, we posted questions and answers on a board, for example to rearrange meal times.
After 3 to 4 days, the depth or embrace of silence allowed for a depth and intensity in the middle of London no different to the most secluded place in Wales…
If separation from ‘normal’ life was harder to achieve at home, re-aggregation felt natural, and it was great to be spared the trauma of a long, tiring, noisy and busy return trip home.
As an Oblate couple, we follow the imperatives of the Rule of St Benedict to practice silence, and have found that with a bit of creativity and planning, a retreat at home can indeed work! Our low-key, low-budget silent retreat in London in the midst of the pandemic was an extraordinary gift and highlight we are deeply grateful for, and that still nourishes us today. We hope that in these uncertain, frightening, maybe lonely and desperate times, you can also find a safe haven in the embrace of silence. Keep safe!
Thomas & Klara Brunnhuber
Oblates of Douai Abbey, UK
Liminal Reality and Transformational Power, by Timothy L. Carson
The Rites of Passage (Second edition), by Arnold van Gennep